The most common reasons why Brits are calling in sick

The most recent Omicron subvariant, Arcturus, has caused a rise in the global cases of coronavirus around the World, including the UK. The Covid pandemic has had a profound impact on every single aspect of our lives, including the dynamics of taking sick leave. This prompted our team at TradingPedia to look into the leading causes of health related absences within the UK, and, to our surprise, 2022 was a record-breaker in terms of workdays lost due to illness.

So, what are the most likely reasons Brits use to phone in sick? Thanks to the most recent data published by the Office for National Statistics, we were able to identify the top health issues that force UK employees to take sick leave. We also observed how gender and age can play a role in the frequency of health related absences.


Our team utilised information provided in the 2022 edition of the ‘Sickness absence in the UK labour market’ dataset. In order to rank the reasons for phoning in sick, we took into account how each category of illness has contributed towards the total health related absences for 2022 in terms of the percentage of occurrences. This refers to the percentage of times employees have chosen a given health condition category as the reason for lost work hours. We also factored in how many workdays have been lost as a result.

Data regarding the absence rate by gender, age, and year is also sourced from the ONS dataset, as is the percentage of men and women who have phoned in sick, depending on the type of illness. Additional information pertaining to specific health issues is sourced from the NHS.

By utilising ONS data such as UK employment figures, the median average salary, the daily pay, and the number of lost workdays due to illness, we calculated the cost of sick days for 2021 and 2022. The average total cost of sick leave on an annual basis is sourced from the Department of Health.

The Findings

Taking a day off work due to a valid health reason is an important part of self-care, not to mention the fact that there are many health conditions that can have an adverse effect on one’s job performance. Let us now delve into some of the highlights from our study.

Top Three Most Likely Reasons to Call in Sick

Absence from Work Due to Sickness in the UK, 2022
Reason Given for SicknessPercentage of OccurrencesDays Lost (millions)
Minor illnesses29.3%44.3
Musculoskeletal problems10.5%23.4
Respiratory conditions8.3%16.2
Mental health conditions7.9%18.5
Gastrointestinal problems5.4%9.5
Prefer not to give details5.3%9.5
Headaches and migraines3.5%4.3
Eye/ear/nose/mouth/dental problems2.2%3.7
Heart, blood pressure, circulation problems1.9%5.1
Genito-urinary problems1.8%3

Minor illnesses seem to be the main culprit for taking a day off work among workers in the UK labour market. For 2022, they constitute 29.3% of all occurrences of sick leave. These include health issues such as coughs, colds, and flu, among others. Conditions like sickness, nausea and diarrhoea are also part of this category.

The flu, in particular, can cause problems like headaches, high temperature, sore throat, and exhaustion, according to the NHS, all of which will significantly impair an employee’s ability to work. Telling the difference between cold and flu can sometimes be tricky due to the overlapping symptoms.

The second most likely group of conditions that necessitates taking health related days off is classified as ‘Other’. These account for 23.8% of all occurrences in 2022 and include accidents, poisonings, infectious diseases, skin disorders, and diabetes, among others. It is important to point out that in 2020 and 2021, interviewers conducting the surveys were advised to code cases of coronavirus as ‘Other’. It was also assumed that people could self-report it under the categories of ‘Minor Illnesses’ or ‘Respiratory conditions’, which is why a follow-up question regarding COVID-19 was introduced. However, this practice was discontinued in 2022, and the coronavirus has, therefore, not been factored in within the figures for that year.

Musculoskeletal problems such as back pain, neck pain, and upper limb problems complete the top three reasons for calling in sick in 2022. A total of 10.5% of the reported cases were due to these conditions. Overall, the top three reasons for calling in sick account for a total of 115.8 million days lost in 2022.

Genito-urinary problems are at the other end of the spectrum, comprising only 1.8% of all occurrences of taking a day off work. Heart, blood pressure and circulation problems account for 1.9% of all cases, whereas eye, ear, nose, mouth, and dental problems caused 2.2% of health related absences. The above-mentioned three least likely reasons account for a total of 11.8 million days lost in 2022.

Sickness Аbsence Rate By Gender

Curiously, it seems that there are differences between men and women when it comes to sick leave rates. According to the information in the ‘Sickness absence in the UK labour market’ dataset, women will call in sick more often than men. The absence rate due to health issues was recorded to be 2.2% among men, while for women, the percentage is 3.2%.

The breakdown of absences by gender and illness type further sheds light on the discrepancies between genders. Minor illnesses are cited as the leading cause of absences among women – 27.7%. For men, colds, the flu, and other minor health issues account for 31.1% of sickness-related absences. This 3.4% difference shows that compared to women, men are more likely to take sick leave when they suffer a minor health condition.

Mental health conditions, however, constitute a smaller percentage of occurrences in men (6.4%) compared to women (9.7%).

Sickness Аbsence Rate Increases With Age

Many older employees can attest to their health becoming more and more fragile as the years go by. Official data further supports this sad reality.
In 2022, the absence rate due to health issues among those aged between 16 and 24 was 1.9%. The rest of the data shows an upward trend – 2% of employees 25 to 34 years old have called in sick in 2022, while for British residents between 35 and 49 years of age, the percentage is 2.3%.

If you are from the UK, celebrated your 65th birthday sometime during or prior to 2022, and have taken sick leave in the said year, you are among the 3.7% within this age group to have done so. This is the highest illness-related absence rate among all age demographics within Britain.

Record Levels of Days Lost Due To Sickness in 2022

Throughout the years, sick leave has proven to be responsible for a large number of lost workdays. When the ONS first began recording data on health related work absences in 2009, the total number of workdays lost was found to be 146.9 million. Although the count would fluctuate in the years to follow, it would never reach or exceed 2009 levels until 2021, when the total number hit 149.8 million – 2.9 million more than the 2009 figures. The sharpest increase was observed in 2022, however, when a record high of 185.6 million workdays were lost as a result of health-related absences.

Over £27 Billion Lost Due To Sickness in 2022

As established, the total number of lost workdays peaked in 2022 at 185.6 million, while the figure for 2021 was 149.8 million. In addition, the median annual salary for full-time workers in 2021 was £31,285, according to the Office for National Statistics, or £137.82 per day on average. As for 2022, full-time workers made £33,000 annually, or an average of £148.65 daily.

This data shows us that sick leave absences cost £20.67 billion in 2021, and in 2022, the figure rose to £27.58 billion – a notable increase of £6.91 billion. As for the total economic cost of sick leave, the Department of Health estimates it to exceed £100 billion annually when factors like lost productivity, sick benefits, informal caregiving, and the like are taken into account.

The Cost of Sick Leave to the UK Economy
YearTotal Working Days Per YearMedian Annual Salary (average, full-time)Average Salary per DayTotal Days Lost to IllnessCost of Workdays Lost


It is clear that there are several factors that can play a role in how frequently UK employees take sick leave. The nature of the health issue is crucial, with minor illnesses being, by far, the most common cause. The UK labour market experienced increases in health related absence rates within all age groups in 2022. Overall, the most susceptible groups during the past year included women, ageing workers, those with chronic diseases, part-time workers, and people working in the care and leisure sectors.

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